By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
The history of Catholic faith in St. Bernard Parish can be traced to the king of Spain, who sent Canary Islanders, in several waves, to Louisiana beginning in 1778. These “Isleños” established St. Bernard Catholic Church at the first settlement, said Tony Fernandez Jr., a parishioner whose heritage stems from early settler Felix Marrero.
“There were several settlements along south Louisiana, but this was the most successful,” Fernandez said of Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs, which he described as “a colony within the colony of Louisiana” with its own government, subservient to the colony’s governor.
Along with a church, there were militia and government buildings and a cemetery in close proximity, as was common in early Spanish colonial settlements. Fernandez said parish historian Bill Hyland found an 1848 state site map verifying this.
With many relatives among the early settlers – and because his father Anthony Fernandez Sr. and uncle Frank Fernandez were educators – history was a common topic at the Fernandez home. His Uncle Frank also was parish historian emeritus.
Tony Fernandez’s historical interest in St. Bernard led him to seek the exact location of the first permanent church, begun in 1787 and completed in 1791, the courthouse and early cemetery. The church parish, dedicated to Gov. Galvez’s patron, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, is among the oldest in Louisiana. It was first ministered by Father Mariano Brunette in 1785, then by Spanish Recollect Father Agustin Lamar from 1787-93.
Cemented the history
In 2000, Fernandez hired a company to conduct thermal imaging around St. Bernard Catholic Church and cemetery. Soil temperature differs when it is disturbed by digging, possibly indicating a grave or building foundation.
Hurricane Katrina destroyed those original documents, so in March 2017, Fernandez conducted another non-invasive technique – Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) – to re-document possible anomalies that could indicate structural remains.
Search grids were mapped in an area next to the existing church, which was built in 1924-25. An earlier structure, dating to 1851, was destroyed by a 1916 fire. The GPR also was used across Bayou Road in the church cemetery.
The GPR survey found a 6-by-12-foot burial vault next to the church, 14 potential non-vaulted burial sites, a potential water well in front of the church and two potential structural foundations in the church rear (possibly the Spanish courthouse and a privy) and one mass burial site (possibly due to the 1918 influenza epidemic) in front of St. Bernard Catholic Cemetery across Bayou Road.
“Both scientific processes showed the same thing,” Fernandez said. “It showed some subsurface foundation of brick for the government building and a privy.”
Catholics from beginning
Fernandez’s Marrero ancestor was an early St. Bernard Catholic Church elder. He certified and listed early parishioners, who paid for a family pew, and led an 1813 church financial drive and a campaign for new bridge construction over the bayou, Fernandez said. He also gave an affidavit to Congress describing how this area was settled so the United States could, in 1832, recognize land grants received from the king of Spain.
He believes Felix Marrero was a farmer, like most Isleños, given a land grant by Spain. He was literate and “seemed to have more means than others,” Fernandez surmised.
By the early- to mid-1800s, sugar cane was grown profitably in St. Bernard.
“It made this area like a gold mine,” Fernandez said. “So, wealthy people came here and bought up the land. The Reggios, the Oliviers, the Bienvenus bought as much ground as they could from the Isleños and raised sugar cane on plantations they farmed. Some Isleños worked on plantations as overseers. Others moved to Land’s End near Lake Borgne and Delacroix Island, Reggio and Shell Beach during tough economic times in St. Bernard and became fishermen.”
Tony’s grandfather Francisco – about whom he is writing a story – emigrated from Spain in 1909 and was a commercial fisherman who married an Isleño from Shell Beach.
“Spanish immigrants went to Shell Beach because the area was growing economically,” he said. “When the railroad was built, it went to Shell Beach from New Orleans. The railroad hauled seafood, so Shell Beach had a means of selling seafood. In that era, they also had slab boats that came into Lake Borgne from Biloxi and Gulfport to buy shrimp during shrimp season.”
Isleños were fur trappers and sold pelts for coats, and hunters sold ducks commercially in New Orleans.
Marker to go up
From decades of research – he started as an inquisitive LSU student with access to the university’s library and continued as a law school student – Fernandez realized there were unmarked burials on the church’s east side. He estimates approximately
150 burials were unaccounted for, beginning in 1787.
“It intrigued me where they could be,” Fernandez said. “Of course, those were our Isleños ancestors and first colonists who came here.”
Catholic sacramental records show the first burial in 1787 of Joe Mesa, a native of Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, he said. Records also show 85 known burials on the grounds but without markers. (Church records for baptisms between 1787-1801 and marriages from 1787-1821 were lost, according to “A Southern Catholic Heritage,” written by former New Orleans archdiocesan archivist Dr. Charles Nolan.)
A Spanish territory since the 1763 Treaty of Paris (after the French and Indian War, when France ceded the Louisiana territory to Spain), the earliest sacramental records were in Havana, Cuba, the original seat of the church in Louisiana and the Floridas, Fernandez said. Spain returned the property to France in 1803, and France quickly sold it that same year to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.
With GPR verifying possible burial locations, Fernandez is working on honoring the dead with a modest memorial next to the church. He has already had an ironwork artist design a sketch for the memorial entrance and has purchased a wrought-iron cross as a preview of the site to come.
“We might have support from the government of the Canary Islands,” Fernandez said, mentioning how – during the first imaging in 2000 – Canary Island representatives visiting the annual Isleños Festival in St. Bernard toured St. Bernard Church to learn about early Isleños here. They expressed interest in collaborating on a suitable Isleños memorial.
Katrina sidelined that effort, but the recent GPR imaging re-energized it. Fernandez sent a survey copy to Canary Island officials.
“I would love to have materials crafted from the Canary Islands over these graves here,” he said. He hopes Archbishop Gregory Aymond will re-consecrate the land at the graves sites when the project is completed.
“Our new pastor, Father (Hoang) Tuong, is excited about the discovery,” Fernandez said. “He attended a luncheon given by the Los Isleños Cultural and Heritage Society, honoring the feast day of St. Bernard, and disclosed at the luncheon that the memorial is in the process of being designed.”
“This work confirms the many generations of Isleños and others who were baptized, married and buried on this same ground. It is a story of their faith in their Church and in Jesus Christ, their savior,” Fernandez said.
Click here to view the Clarion Herald flipbook, “River of Faith: 300 Years as a New Orleans Catholic Community – 1718-2018”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.